Quebec Leader Tours Firebombed School

Entering the room that once housed a children’s library, the premier of Quebec couldn’t help but scrunch up his nose against the burnt, toxic smell.

"It will actually leave a very strong impression," Jean Charest told reporters, following his April 8 visit to Montreal’s United Talmud Torah. "This sight and smell leaves a lasting impression of how violent a gesture this was."

Firebombed early on the morning of April 5, the school reeked of burned children’s books and plastic, making it nearly impossible to stay inside for more than a few minutes. A note left at the arson scene reportedly said the attack was in retribution for Israel’s recent killing of Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin and was just a taste of things to come.

Police have tightened security at local synagogues and mosques following the attack. The heightened security came as some parents of students at the school said the attack was reminiscent of book burnings in Nazi Germany.

"My sons are in shock, and so am I," said Joel Greenberg, a parent of one of the students. "I am very worried about their safety from here on in."

Politicians, community leaders and letters to the editor all condemned the attack.

The city’s Sun Youth community organization has offered a $15,000 reward for information leading to the arrests of the perpetrators. Police reportedly had leads on the arsonists’ identities but said they don’t know the group that claimed responsibility in the note left at the school.

B’nai Brith Canada issued a statement on calling on the government to do more to protect Jewish sites.

"We acknowledge and appreciate the condemnation by politicians of all backgrounds," but "words are meaningless if not accompanied by action," said Frank Dimant, the group’s executive vice president.

The arson occurred a few weeks after a rash of anti-Semitic incidents, including graffiti spray-painted on homes in a Jewish neighborhood in Toronto and after a report showed a rise in anti-Semitic incidents across Canada.

Prime Minister Paul Martin met in Ottawa several weeks ago with members of major Jewish organizations, who expressed their concern about a growing tide of anti-Semitism in Canada. The groups included the Canadian Jewish Congress, B’nai Brith Canada, United Israel Appeal, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the leadership of several of Canada’s Jewish federations.

The government is finishing a plan to establish a hate crimes police force across the country and to establish initiatives to combat racist attitudes, Justice Minister Irwin Cotler said. He described the plan as "an effective and comprehensive approach" that will help to "mobilize a constituency of conscience" in the country."

The heads of two leading Islamic organizations, Salam Elmenyawi of the Muslim Council of Montreal and Mohamed Elmasry of the Canadian Islamic Congress, condemned the attack. Elmasry called it a hate crime, adding that "the agony will be double if it was committed by a Muslim."

Charest’s visit to the school, which lasted slightly more than an hour, was intended primarily to reassure students, parents and faculty that his Liberal government was doing everything possible to ensure that such an attack would not happen again.

After seeing the ruined library, Charest spent about 20 minutes with a class of sixth-graders who had been gathered specially to meet him, although the school was closed at the time because of Passover. He answered questions from students and reassured them that they would receive "as much help as necessary" to get the library reopened.

School officials estimated that it will cost about $225,000 just to replace the damaged books. The provincial government will pick up part of the cost, Charest said.

He added, "We’re going to work with those who have the job of policing to be very vigilant in trying to prevent these events from happening again."

It was clear that the students had spent a lot of time pondering the broader ramifications of the attack.

"I feel like this will not become another Holocaust, because this time people understand what’s going on," a student named Jillian told Charest.

Charest praised the educational role of the Montreal Holocaust Museum, adding that during the Holocaust era, "people who were in a leadership position should have been less tolerant of what went on."

During a brief meeting with parents, Charest reiterated his pledge of tighter policing. In the meantime, while police are continuing the investigation, he said, "we will continue to be very vigilant. We will examine, in light of these incidents, what action will be taken to prevent them."